Thursday, March 27, 2014

Tips for traveling overseas with a toddler

We've just returned from our two-week trip to the Middle East, which involved a 13-hour flight each way and an 8-9 hour time change. I have to say, as a mom of our very, very active 17 month old, Magpie, I was not looking forward to my kiddo being confined on the plane those many hours, and the time change was also nervous-making.

But Magpie did great with the trip - handling the jet lag like a champ and tolerating the flights quite well. What a relief!

So I wanted to share what worked for us, in case it could be of help to others.

The main rule I would state is that to successfully survive a lengthy plane flight, allow yourself to break your usual parenting rules.

This suggestion breaks down into the following categories:

1. Snacks. We always travel with snacks, but we are usually pretty health conscious in what we choose. For the plane trip, we threw that out the window and packed snacks with high appeal and ease of delivery, adding a few mini boxes of sugar cereal to our typical fare of  lentil chips, cheese sticks, and dried fruit. We also packed mucho formula powder (Magpie has drunk Baby's Only brand), so that if the milk overseas tasted "funny" to Magpie she'd have a comforting and familiar beverage available. So advice is, bring snacks, lots of snacks. Lots of different snacks if you can.

2. We still use a pacifier with nap time and overnight. We have been moving toward weaning her from them but decided to wait until after this trip. At home, Magpie can only have the pacifiers at nap time and bedtime. On the plane flight, we allowed her to have pacifier anytime she wanted it. This resulted in a pretty pacified kid.

3. Activities - we don't usually let Magpie watch videos or play on the iphone, ipad, etc. However, for this trip, we downloaded a few Baby Einstein videos and a couple of early toddler counting and other games (I found "recommended" video games for her age group, even though I think screen time isn't really recommended at all before at 2. I also bought sticker books, coloring books, washable crayons, and a small new toy. The idea was to have some quiet and stationary things to do with her when she started going nuts with the sitting still.

Secondly, be very thoughtful about your seating on the plane.

In specific, I'd recommend:

1. Pony up for a seat for your kid. If they are under two you don't have to, but your life will be so much easier. I promise you this is true. For previous flights, we have always flown with her on our laps. Her having her own seat was a life saver. * Edited to add: that said, Magpie did not sit in her seat for take-offs or landings. These were experienced exclusively in daddy's lap using the infant seatbelt (she hates being restrained, and she would not tolerate it in her own seat).

2. Choose your seats on the plane wisely. We opted for the first row in economy going, and we scored an empty seat beside us to boot. These were golden. Magpie was able to stand and "play" in the bigger space afforded by being in the front row and the extra seat let her lie across and  sleep better. That said, coming home, we were stuck behind another row with no extra seat and we coped ok. But it was easier with the front row extra room and extra empty seat, by far.

So that's the plane flight recommendations. There is also the significant time change to contend with.

My number one recommendation for successful and quick adaptation to the time change is that you start preparing for the shift ahead of time.

For departure: We started adjusting Magpie's naptimes and bedtime several days ahead of our departure, moving both an hour later each day for about 4 days ahead of our trip. This caused some fairly suffering in our household because Magpie clung to her wake up time for three of those days, even as the sleep times moved later. But it started her in the direction of adjusting and I think reduced our suffering on arrival at our destination. We also skipped her nap entirely the first day at our destination just due to circumstances, so she was one sleepy girl by that first night. The happy result? She slept really well on the new schedule, waking up the first two nights at 3am at the time of our destination (7pm here), but quickly settling again and sleeping through the rest of the night. By the third night, she just slept through.

For return: We failed to heed our own advice and didn't pregame anything with Magpie in terms of adjustment. We've been home 6 nights, and she is still not sleeping well and is waking several times a night, so this is not the recommended course of events. It is getting better, but in hindsight, I wish for all of our sakes that we'd started moving our bedtimes/wake up times back in the right direction (it was a 9 hour change coming home), rather than wait to tackle it on arrival back in NYC. Live and learn.

Those are the main suggestions I can think of. What about you guys? What has worked when traveling internationally with little ones? Please chime in in the comments!


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  1. So good to hear your trip went so well! I fly a lot with my now three year old. We are taking her to Africa in a few months, which will be our longest flights.

    From my experience, forking over the money for her own seat, lots of snacks of any variety, and as many activities as possible are, as you say, life savers.

    Stickers rock.

    To add to your list, my daughter really, really likes the two airplane/airport books we have:

    Amazing Airplanes by Mitton and Parker


    Airport by Barton

    We read them a lot before flying, talking through everything that is going to happen (esp security screening and needing to wear a seat belt, making up all kinds of stories about the characters in the books). We even take the books with us on the plane and she'll refer to them to see where we are along the process. It's really cute -- toddler instruction manuals for airline travel!

  2. I've flown a lot with my 2 girls between the UK or South African time zone (basically the same zone) to Vancouver (8-10 hours later) and back. I've done this now with kids aged 6 weeks, 5 months, 9 months, and 2.5 years. I completely agree with your suggestions here. Although, we were never that organized with preparing for the time change-- I think just packing and getting ready to go was enough!
    Our first flight, I was desperate for advice on dealing with baby jet lag and could never find much. So here is mine: the first few nights, don't be alarmed if your kid wants to get up in the night and play. We are normally very structured in our routines and bedtimes. However, if it is morning-ish time biologically, nothing is going to convince a toddler to stay in bed. So we ended up having breakfast at 2 am the first night, then 3:30 the next, then 5... eventually it all settled down. Keep pushing bed time forward (or back) and don't let them nap longer than maybe 3 hours at a time-- don't let them have their night sleep all day or they'll never get used to the new time. Apparently being outside for dawn and dusk helps reset circadian rhythms too (managed this for dusk, dawn-- not so much). As the adult, push through the day. Use coffee to prop you up. I've never got through jet lag faster than when dealing with my kids in the midst of it all!!! It sucks but our kids always got over it within about 4 days.

  3. Gwen's country tally is up to 18 (she's 28 months; we had averaged 1/month for the first 13, but now we're mostly doing repeats rather than new countries :) ), and your advice/experience pretty much lines up with mine. In fact, one of our parenting rules is that traveling is special. We get treats. Bed times can be messed up. We don't let it bother us.

    Gwen's final year of pacifier use was like Magpie's -- at home, only for naps and bedtime, but when we traveled, she could have it more often. This worked great until around 25 months, when we took a week long trip to the UK, and suddenly the presence of the pacifiers caused more grief than it soothed. We came home and weaned her off, and now, we've never had cause to wish we still had them while travelling, so that worked out very well.

    The only place where my experience differed was on-lap vs. own-seat. We kept her on our laps until we couldn't any more, and one of the reasons is that it only takes one demonstration for Gwen to learn something. So when the stewardess holds up the seatbelt, and shows "this is how you fasten, tighten, and unfasten your belt", that was it. Now that she knows how to undo her belt, we have a hard time keeping her in it during take off and landing. When she was sitting on my lap, I could hold her in place easier, or tuck a blanket around it so she couldn't see/reach it, and that helped a lot.

    But if you can afford it AND your kid will keep the built on when necessary, yeah, the extra seat can be a god-send. Toddlers get heavy after about 3 hours!

  4. aryanhwy - good point. let me clarify - we bought Magpie a seat, which she sometimes sat in or stood in or otherwise played in. but she was in our laps for all take offs and landings. there's NO WAY Magpie would tolerate sitting in her own seat, buckled in, for that amount of time (unless in the car seat)

  5. We've done a lot of transatlantic flights with our two and I ditto all your recommendations. The other suggestions I have are for a strap to attach the carseat to a rolling carry-on ( It makes the seat easier to transport and it replaces a stroller for your child--making it a lot easier to get from gate to gate!

    The other thing that's been a major success with my kids is having their own miniature rolling suitcase. You want one small enough that they can hold it in their lap and for you to loop the handle over your arm. (because it will be carried anytime you need to move quickly.) They don't hold much, but I usually put in a few novelty toys and their pajamas/change of clothes.

    They are always *so* excited to have their own luggage that it helps keep them focused. Also, we get a lot of "That's so cute!" from the adults around us which is a nice psychological boost when you're stressed about your kids becoming a nuisance.

  6. Thanks for the tips, Mo!
    i'm planning on taking the kids on their first flight (7 hour time difference) in August. my son will be 4 and daughter 1. My main concern is dealing with carseats (i.e. taking them) and the jet lag.
    You've mentioned before about not letting Magpie watch tv. I know there are "studies" but this is something I've always disagreed with. I was wondering what your reasoning for this was. I'm constantly amazed at the concepts and vocabulary my son has picked up from tv shows (and yes, many before he was 2)

  7. Also, once your kid DOES have their own seat, a lot of carriers let you bring their car seat to put INTO the airline seat! We had one nightmare overnight flight where our 2 year old just couldn't sleep in the airline seat. All the subsequent overnight flights we have used her car seat which she loves. Every time, parents around us tell us how they are going to try our trick for their next flight.

  8. Take advantage of all the other people that want to chill with your toddler. I went solo to London with a 13-month-old, and fellow passengers, old and young, LOVED hanging with him… he's a pretty happy dude, and very social, so he loved visiting new people, and it was a great way to help him make those long hours pass! I love that he will always take the time to chat up new people and is not afraid to be with them…. He still does, now, nine years later!

  9. We've done a lot of 6h Canada-Europe time change trips. Our best tip (espcially when heading to Spain, where you generally don't eat till 9am) is to not fully change over. We put K to bed around 9:15pm here, and routinely now just put her to bed at midnight in Europe. It means we only really have to shift 3 hours going and coming, and makes life so much easier.
    I agree, the only time K gets to watch much TV is on an airplane. Whatever passes the time and keeps her quiet. At home, she's lucky to get 30min a few times a week. (Of course, I don't know what our nanny lets her watch)


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